Per Pupil Expenditures and Political Data

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I’m off my schedule, this morning, because a behind-the-scenes discussion swept me up and caught my attention.  Although the underlying numbers haven’t become the subject of public debate for any specific purpose (yet), it’s worth sharing the lesson.

Somebody with an interest in protecting and expanding public school budgets sent around an email citing U.S. Census data that shows per-pupil spending in the three Southern New England states as follows:

  • Connecticut: $16,631
  • Massachusetts: $14,515
  • Rhode Island: $14,415

For the record, that puts the three states at the fourth, seventh, and eighth highest expenditures among all 50 states.  Also for the record, these amounts somehow put Massachusetts at the top of the nation if you average fourth and eighth grade NAEP scores in math and reading while Rhode Island is pretty much the average state and Connecticut doesn’t quite split the difference between its two New England neighbors by that measure.  In short, Rhode Island is spending a lot, not getting commensurate results, and spending more is not likely to produce better outcomes.

In an effort to argue that Rhode Island is actually dramatically under-funding its schools, the person who sent the email argued that Rhode Island’s number should be reduced by almost $1,300 because Massachusetts and Connecticut fund teacher retirement entirely through state government (which, he says, he confirmed with people in each state government).  Even adjusting that amount to the U.S. Census data would only drop Rhode Island to the 13th biggest spender, but the insinuation is that state and local governments could be contributing another $180 million a year to public schools before Rhode Island would actually spending around as much as Massachusetts.

The problem is that the U.S. Census already adjusts the numbers for each state to account for different methods of budgeting and accounting.  In fact, for all three Southern New England states, the Census methodology explains that “payments made by the state government into the state retirement system on behalf of … school systems are included in the tables that display state totals.”  I even called the U.S. Census to make sure this means the states’ appropriations into the pension fund for teacher retirement are included, and it does.

This is a good lesson in the development of public policy.  Potentially hundreds of people with an especially high level of influence on education policy in Rhode Island might now think that the state’s spending relative to its neighbors is much lower than it actually is.  Of course, a large number of them probably don’t care one way or another; to them, the goal is more money for public schools no matter the comparison or the results.  But it certainly won’t make it any easier to make good decisions for our children if we’re basing them on information that is not only selective but incorrect.



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